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To Remember, Make It Weird

Memorizing can be fun.

Memories that stick with us for a lifetime are those that fit other things we remember—but have a slightly weird twist. The most effective memory strategy is to relate new information with something you already know, but do it with a weird twist. This is the basic principle of well-known mnemonic strategies, like acrostics or "Memory Palace." The idea of acrostics is to construct a sentence in which the first letter of each word reminds you of what you are trying to remember, as in the names of the 12 cranial nerves:

"On Old Olympus Towering Tops A Finn and A German Viewed Some Hops"(olfactory, optic, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, auditory, glossopharyngeal, vagus, spinal accessory, hypoglossal).

Acrostics and all other mnemonic aids work best if you create mental-image representations—the weirder the better. It is the weirdness that makes things especially memorable. There are three basic techniques:

Subject-Verb-Object. This linguistic sequence comes naturally to us. It is the way we speak. The mnemonic application is to create images for what you want to remember in a subject-verb-object form. For example, if you want to remember to pick up some corn, milk and sausage at the grocery store, you might mentally see yourself pushing a grocery cart in the store, throwing in a package of your favorite sausage, pouring milk on it as if you were watering a plant, and corn stalks sprout up as you approach the cashier. Weird, yes. Easy to remember, yes. If you wanted to remember the capital of Arkansas, one of the first things that might come to mind is Bill Clinton, who was governor there. Given his scandals, you might want to throw a rock at him. Visualize throwing a "little rock" at a picture of Clinton.

Story Chains. With this more sophisticated method, you use the mental-image representations to create a story. You could, for example, try to memorize the order of planets around our sun by rote repetition: of mercury, venus, earth, mars, jupiter, saturn, uranus, and neptune. But the weird, more effective way would be to create a mental image story wherein you visualize the winged warrior of mercury, who is attracted to the statue of venus; they go to the NASA image of earth to get married; they go on honeymoon taking a suitcase of mars candy bars; they divorce and go to wail at the Jewish (jupiter) wailing wall; they die and you sit on a cremated urn (saturn) of their remains; you dump the remains on the ground and it rains on you (uranus), which washes the ashes out past the pitchfork sign of jupiter, who reigns over the sea.

Memory Palace. This is one of several “peg” systems in which memory becomes easier when you attach your image representations to known objects, such as furniture in your home “palace.” This is how I memorize the names of students. I may attach mental image representations of their names to objects in my yard and then move mentally into various rooms in my house until I complete the class enrollment. For example, for the names Bott, Carino, Castillo, Dillawn, Eckerdt, Flores, Garrett, Grantham, and Hans, I might see the following in my mind’s eye:

As I leave my back door, I see a robot (Bott) trying to hold the door shut as I turn the knob. Then as I push the button to raise the garage door, I see the button jump off the wall to my car (Carino). As the door rises, I see my lawn, covered not in grass but in pickles (Dillawn). Then, going left to right, the next thing I see is my my shed, which magically has morphed into Eckerd’s drug store (Eckert). Next I see my big cedar tree which is growing out of a wood floor instead of the ground (Flores). Then I see my little raised garden bed where I see Ulyssses Grant (Grantham) leading toy soldiers in battle. Then I see my flower bush, which instead of sprouting flowers has hands (Hans) hanging from all its branches. And so on. Students are amazed I can do call the roll in order from memory. They would be even more astonished if they knew I could do it backwards or in any order. The link anchors in my “palace” are already memorized and when I see them in my mind’s eye, the images I am trying to memorize pop into mind automatically.

I discuss these techniques and other memory principles in great detail in my memory books (students will love my 5-star e-book at See reviews of my books at the author tab of

Per Sederberg, a professor of psychology at The Ohio State University says that "If we want to be able to retrieve a memory later, you want to build a rich web. It should connect to other memories in multiple ways, so there are many ways for our mind to get back to it. A memory of a lifetime is like a big city, with many roads that lead there. We forget memories that are desert towns, with only one road in. "You want to have a lot of different ways to get to any individual memory."

Once you have organized new information in a novel, weird way, rehearse it right away without distraction or interruption. New memories net time to set up, like wet concrete. The process is called consolidation, and without protection from distraction, a new memory may get erased or corrupted.


Better Grades, Less Effort (;

Memory Power 101 (New York: Skyhorse)

Ohio State University. (2017, June 19). Why the 'peculiar' stands out in our memory. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 20, 2017 from

More from William R. Klemm Ph.D.
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